A Russian National Guard? Not so fast, or so likely

Not at all clear...

According to Nezavisimaya gazeta (April 2, 2012), President-elect Putin is planning to create a new National Guard, a domestic security force uniting the MVD VV Interior Troops, the MChS Ministry of Emergency Situation forces and various other security and military elements.

This Natsionalnaya gvardiya would include not just paramilitary security forces but also light airmobile units with their own transport aircraft, specialized motorized infantry brigades, and special forces. The Guard would also assimilate the 20,000 officers in the new Military Police, making it in many ways similar to the French Gendarmerie Nationale or Italian Carabinieri: a parallel police service, parallel military and internal security force all in one. It would comprise some 350,000-400,000 men, mostly (80%) volunteer contract servicemen. About half would be the VV (which number 182,000), the rest from other agencies, including the armed forces. Indeed, some paratroop and airmobile elements of the VDV Airborne Forces would be transferred across. (Though if you’re really creating such an omnibus of repression, why not throw in Cossack forces and auxiliaries, while you’re at it?)

According to the article, “This is not the first time that the powers-that-be have toyed with the concept of a National Guard. The Institute of Contemporary Development, the outgoing president’s think-tank, suggested the creation of the National Guard in the programme drafted for Medvedev four years ago.” However, it actually has a rather longer pedigree, as in 1994 Boris Yeltsin’s security chief Alexander Korzhakov proposed a similar force, not least as a pretty naked bid to consolidate yet more power in his acquisitive hands. According to Izvestiya (January 24, 1995), which leaked the story, it would be an “instrument in the battle for political power and “an armed pillar for the political leader of the state.”

This recent article simply ascribed the scoop to “a source within the Defense Ministry” and said that the Defense Ministry, Security Council, and Presidential Administration were all working on this in the context of the new Defense Plan. It went on to suggest that MVD VV commander-in-chief and deputy interior minister General Nikolai Rogozhkin might head up this new force after he refused the offer of becoming the new armed forces Chief of the General Staff, a post instead likely to go to tough Airborne Forces commander-in-chief General Vladimir Shamanov. (Perhaps as a consolation for losing elements to the Guard?)

The article tied this plan to concern about public order following the wave of “color revolutions” and the risk of both violent uprisings and also an upsurge in public protest. Furthermore, the failure of existing forces to bring order to the North Caucasus “demonstrates that existing forces and means could fail to ensure public safety after all. It will take special forces, mobile and more powerful. This is clearly something beyond the Internal Troops and the other forces of the Interior Ministry.” Drawing a direct comparison with the regular military, which “remain regrettably unable to meet the new challenges and threats to national security” despite all the money spent on them, the Guard would thus shoulder the role fighting insurgencies in North Caucasus. Nikolai Zlobin of the World Security Institute in Washington also chimed in that it could be used in dealing with natural disasters.

So far, so definitive, and it was picked up by RT and Pravda. However, Putin spokesman Dmitry Peskov promptly and categorically denied the reports (and his rebuttal received rather wider recirculation) in unusually unambiguous terms. So what is going on? The original report was by NeGa military correspondent Sergei Konovalov, a man with good silovik contacts but also a track record of either swallowing disinformation he is fed or else being willing to plant stories. The classic example was his 2011 “exposé” of open opposition within the generals to military reform that was later and comprehensively debunked, not least by Jake Kipp. (For the record, yes, there is opposition to the direction and pace of reform within the top brass — just not the kind and scale he claimed.)

So on the one hand, this might have been either a trial balloon or else a bid by some (Rogozhkin? Shamanov?) to get such an idea moved onto the agenda. Rogozhkin, after all, might well favor an initiative that, in effect, doubles the size of his VV and removes him from subordination to the Minister of Internal Affairs.

Even more conspiratorially, the article’s vehement attack on military reform and attempt to undercut Makarov’s position by presenting the only real debate as being as to who would replace him is noteworthy, especially as his 2011 piece had also a strong anti-Makarov theme. It is possible that this may also explain this unusual intervention.

Either way, there seems little real prospect of the formation of a “Natsgvardiya” in the near future. Just as Putin, for all his emotional commitment to the FSB, has held back from acquiescing to their empire-building efforts to resubordinate all elements of the intelligence community to one agency precisely to maintain a balance of power and prevent it from becoming too dominant (seemingly even Putin 2.0 doesn’t want KGB 2.0), so too this looks like a “power verticalization” too far. There is no reason to believe that, in effect, changing their badges and masters would make the VV in the North Caucasus shoot any straighter, nor the firefighters and rescue personnel of the MChS dig through rubble any faster. Instead, such a move would simply reflect political and bureaucratic imperatives and suggest a Kremlin far jumpier and more paranoid than — fortunately — we have yet to assume.

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